A magnificent wall of trees plummets skyward. On the other side of this dirt track scratched from the valley floor, at the bottom of a small slope, a small creek flows quickly along a rocky riverbed, making its way towards the foothills through which I’ve just wriggled. Even though it’s obscured by undergrowth, the stream’s musical gushing is clear as can be in this otherwise silent landscape.
There’s an autumnal chill in the air. Pedalling up the rising trail at a snail’s pace, I can almost touch the lowest of the overhanging evergreen branches, and it’s a real effort to crane my neck back far enough to see the skyline and the cloudless blue ceiling. Sunlight still strokes the very highest reaches of this near-vertical slope, hundreds of metres above me, but the rest of this deep cool valley is in shade, because it’s approaching sundown, and I have been searching for the past hour for a spot of flat land to put my tent — which is no mean feat at the bottom of a winding chasm such as this.
These distinctly unexciting observations were made nearly five years ago in the Faragas mountains of Romania. Despite their relative mundanity, I find it incredibly easy to recall even the most insignificant details of this moment.
And I can trace the journey from my home in England up to that point, or for any amount of the travel that came after it, in a kind of timelapse of my mind’s eye. I can speed it up and cross nations in a second, or slow it right down and relive the multitude of events that happened in a single day.
In case you’re under the impression that I’m blessed with some kind of remarkable memory, consider this possibly more familiar scenario. I have been attempting to learn the Armenian language for about three years. While I’m able to understand the gist of most conversations, I struggle to string even the most basic of sentences together. I still cannot remember simple words such as ‘before’, ‘give’, ‘evening’ and ‘shop’. There are still several letters in the Armenian alphabet for which I am unable to remember the pronunciation. (Another resonant example might be that I cannot remember my phone number.)
Why exactly is that? Why that can I recall the minutiae of a million roadside encounters that I made no attempt to fix in my mind, yet hours of diligent study and practice are unable to make a permanent register of the association between a shape on a page and the sound of a simple consonant? And what insights might come of understanding the reasons?
This paradox has been bubbling away in my head for years, but I think I’ve arrived at a speculative answer — with far-reaching implications for the bicycle traveller. (You might want to get a cup of tea at this point.)
An Evolutionary Perspective
When it comes to understanding why things are the way they are in the case of our strengths and weaknesses as a species, it’s often useful to turn to evolutionary principles. The theories spelled out by Darwin and clarified by Dawkins et al have been resoundingly successful in explaining how life of Earth came to be in its present state, and they are all the more elegant and beautiful for their simplicity.
We humans have evolved this fantastic capacity to conscript our past experiences for an internal record we call ‘memory’. Memory is the foundation of our identity, underpins our every daily decision, and is drawn into all our future planning. Since too little time has passed to make us biologically distinct from the last era of hunter-gatherers, it makes sense to assume that our memory evolved to serve the needs of that primitive type of society.
What kind of memory would offer the best chance of survival to our forebears, whose lives depended on finding food and identifying hazards? It might sound obvious, but it would probably be one that was adept at spatial and visual learning — or, in other words, where things are and what they look like.
A thought experiment clarifies the point: imagine visiting a friend’s house for the first time, and being given a couple of minutes to visit every room in the house. Would you recognise that house the next time you visited? Would you be able to remember your way to the bathroom? I’m willing to bet that you probably would, because even with the most limited exposure — and without any conscious effort — we are incredibly good at committing places and images to memory.
You might argue that you’d struggle to pick out any particular one of a row of Victorian terraces after a single visit, which is why we invented house-numbers rather than typing ‘the house with the dark blue door and the recycling bin perched on the wall to the right and the pink fairy lights in the living-room window’ into the order form of Amazon. And you’d be right to do so, because we evolved to live in an environment carved by geological processes; one without our own sense of orderliness imposed upon it, and one in which almost every landscape was in some way unique.
So it’s no surprise that I can remember my winding approach to the nameless gypsy village (in which I stayed the night in a small house belonging to a one-eyed lady with a side-parting and her mushroom-hunting husband with a huge mural of Christ crucified on the wall and a badly-tuned television blaring the most awful Balkan Pop long into the night).
Because, with the slowness and awareness engendered by the riding of a bicycle, I had plenty of time to take in the hugely varied landscapes through which I passed, and the never-ending stream of unique faces, places and happenings that I encountered every day. These are precisely the things that my memory evolved to store — not the abstract sounds of a second language or writing system, or the even greater abstraction of essentially random strings of numbers that telephones, calendars and credit cards have given us.
It also explains why my memories are less pronounced in the emptier, not-so-visually-exciting places. Much of the Nubian desert has blended into a fairly compact series of sandy, rocky and rather warm impressions, and northern Scandinavia has become a much more succinct tract of spindly pine trees, vast snowfields and frozen lakes than the month-long ride actually encompassed.
There is a vast and ancient body of knowledge surrounding the limitations of our memory — and, more poignantly, how it might be worked around. Most of us have heard of the ‘memory palace’ idea, at least in passing, through the mainstream media. The recent BBC series ‘Sherlock’ had Benedict Cumberbatch depicting our favourite sleuth’s descent into a veritable memory labyrinth from which he was able to pluck the most archaic of facts. Mentalist and magician Derren Brown (of whose shows I am an enormous fan) cites it in his book ‘Tricks Of The Mind’ as one of his most commonly-used devices for committing abstract information — numbers, dates, lists of words — to memory. Tony Buzan has built a megalomaniac’s empire based to a large extent on these ideas.
The memory palace is not a fad. Records of the technique exist from Ancient Greek society almost 2,500 years ago, at which time — with writing still being at a very early stage of development — it appeared to be a fundamental part of of every thinking person’s toolkit to the point that it was barely worth mentioning.
The point of bringing up the ‘memory palace’ is the astonishing parallel it has to my experience of bicycle travel. The user of the technique begins with a location that he or she is familiar with — a direct play to our innate skills with spatial memory — and then scatters unique (often outright bizarre, occasionally provocative) and therefore memorable images at particular spots, thus taking advantage of our excellent visual memory. This journey, of course, is one of the imagination (hence Sherlock’s enthusiastically-deep meditations), but by virtue of imagining this palatial sowing and reaping as a full three-dimensional multi-sensory experience — featuring not just sights but sounds, smells, textures and tastes — the resulting memory is just as strong as had the journey happened for real.
A journey by bicycle — or, for that matter, by foot, or any other slow and engaged style of travel — is almost precisely the same. We become familiar with our locations, which are experienced in fullness by virtue of our ambling and exposed mode of transport. Throughout these locations, which are usually rural, populous or remote, we encounter an endless string of unique and memorable people, landscapes, cultural artifacts and happenings. A cycle-tourist’s daily routine is little short of a journey through an enormous memory palace. Is there any wonder these experiences stick in the mind so stubbornly?
In a society where memory has long been marginalised in favour of external records in books, websites and other directories, which can be accessed at any time through any number of ever-more invasive devices, it’s little wonder that we pay so little attention to how our memories are actually set up to function. We use them increasingly little, and when we do, we use them badly. We repetitively hammer our brains with foreign vocabulary in an attempt to bludgeon it into sticking there. Our education system blasts us with facts, but gives not an ounce of guidance on how to remember them.
Live Longer. Ride Bicycles.
Modern society places the preservation of life at the very peak of its objectives. Authorities plough countless millions into health and safety. We have never been more obsessive about diet and fitness. The institution of medicine is constantly looking to cure yet more killers in order that our physical longevity might be extended yet further.
The modern paradigm is to cram our waking lives as full as possible, to leave no calendar slot unaccounted for, to maximise the efficiency of everything we do. This, it is commonly supposed, is what life is all about.
In reality, our individual longevity has much more to do with perception than statistics. We are all aware of how a month (or a year) can seem to zip by in a flash, and conversely how a week or two of the right kind of activity can feel like it lasted for years. Especially as we grow old, we might look back and consider the way in which we’ve spent our lives. It’s doubtful that we’ll spend much time counting our birthdays. More likely is that we’ll think about the things we’ll remember having done.
I have no problem with the belief in the value of living longer. Life is the greatest privilege of all, and has the potential to be endlessly fascinating. But I want to question the unit of measurement. What is the point of living a hundred years if the memory of it has become a blur of routine interspersed with brief moments of interest?
The last five years of my life have lasted far longer than the previous twenty-four. This is a subjective truth. I cannot imagine how short the same five years might have been had I followed an office-bound career as a web-developer. It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to put my finger on just how this weird life I’m living has had such an effect, and there must be countless other ways in which to achieve the same thing.
If nothing else, though, I hope I’ve convinced you that travelling by bicycle will, in a very real way, extend your life.
Has this article piqued your interest? Here’s some recommended reading:
- Joshua Foer’s excellent journey through memory Moonwalking with Einstein*
- Derren Brown’s self-explanatorily-titled Tricks Of The Mind*
- Some helpful articles I’ve written if you’re considering a cycle tour yourself